Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide

Friday, December 30, 2016

Can the blockchain kill fake news?

Not actually fake news, but still good for a laugh.
Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle has an interesting article on fake news: Fact-Checking's Infinite Regress Problem. Fake news constitutes blocks of information fabricated either wholly or in part from falsehoods to serve a political end. It is an act of commission, as opposed to a related act of omission: reporting blocks of true information chosen selectively to serve a political end.

A natural response to the problem of fake news is the emergence of fact-checkers. But on what basis are these elected or self-appointed fact-checkers to be trusted? Who will guard the guardians? The solution cannot be to appoint another layer of super-fact-checkers, since this process results in an infinite regress. Ultimately, the solution will have to reside in an answer like: "The guarded must guard the guardians."

Fake news--or fake history, for that matter--is not something new. Every society is built on a store of publicly accessible information--a shared history--that evolves over time. But who is assigned write-privileges to this public ledger and how can they be trusted? How can we be sure that Caesar, for example, didn't fabricate much of what is recorded in his Commentaries?

This the problem with public ledgers where everyone has a write-privilege, as we do with the Internet. But the problem is an ancient one. In small social groups, individuals sometimes spread fake news about others or themselves. Whether this information becomes part of the group's shared history may at times depend more on its truthiness than its truthfulness. And false rumors sometimes do destroy individual reputations. A society that cannot guard against individuals freely rewriting its history for personal/political gain at the expense of the community is almost surely doomed to fail. This is not to say that societies cannot function if they rely on a shared history consisting of fake news. Indeed, they may even flourish if fake news takes the form of (say) nation-founding myths designed to promote social cohesion.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with blockchain. Well, a blockchain is simply a shared (distributed) database (history) where the database is updated and kept secure through some communal consensus algorithm. In this piece "Why the Blockchain should be familiar to you" I argue that blockchain technology has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, there are limitations to what a distributed network of human brains talking to each other through traditional methods can accomplish as communities grow larger. But recent advancements in our brain power (computers) and communications technologies (Internet) have now made a global blockchain possible. This is exactly what Bitcoin has accomplished.
And so, as 2016 comes to a close, I put forth a whimsical question. Can blockchain (somehow) kill fake news? No, I don't think so. Well, maybe yes, in some circumstances. (Did I mention that I'm an economist?)

The answer depends on what parts of our shared history we can expect to manage through a computer-based blockchain (and on the details of the consensus protocol). The Bitcoin blockchain appears to have solved the fake news problem for its particular application (essentially, debiting/crediting money accounts--though broader applications appear possible). Might the same principles be used to manage the database at, say, Wikipedia (see How Wikipedia Really Works: An Insider's Wry, Brave Account)?

Ultimately, I'm afraid that the fundamental problem with fake news is not that we don't have the technology to prevent it. The problem seems more deeply rooted in the natural (if unbecoming) human trait of preferring truthiness over truth, especially if truthiness salves where the truth might hurt. I'm not sure there's a solution to this problem apart from trying to instill in ourselves these good Roman virtues (veritas and aequitas, in particular).

Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you all the best for 2017.

PS. Just came across this interesting piece: Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing with Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery.